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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Sister Abhaya murder case: Kerala HC suspends life term, grants bail to convicted priest, nun

High Court bench allows release of Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy on bail till the disposal of their petition challenging the verdict of the trial court

By: Express News Service | Thiruvananthapuram |
Updated: June 23, 2022 3:46:47 pm
Sister Abhaya murder case, Sister Abhya murder convicts, kerala high court, Sister Abhya murder convict gets bail, kerala news, Indian expressSister Abhaya’s body was found in the well of the St Pius Convent in Kottayam on March 27, 1992.

A division bench of the Kerala High Court on Thursday, in an interim order, suspended the life imprisonment of Catholic priest Thomas Kottoor and nun Sephy, who had been convicted by a CBI court in 2020 in connection with the murder of Sister Abhaya, whose body was found inside a well at a convent in Kottayam on March 27, 1992.

The bench of Justices Vinod Chandran and C Jayachandran allowed the release of the duo on bail till the disposal of their petition challenging the verdict of the trial court.

In December 2020, a CBI court in Thiruvananthapuram had sentenced the duo to life imprisonment after a prolonged legal battle. They were charged under Section 302 (murder) and Section 201 (destruction of evidence) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The trial court had allowed the discharge petition of another alleged accused, Father Jose Puthrikkayil.

After examining the verdict of the trial court, the division bench observed, “We do not dwell on the circumstance of lack of explanation or the bizarre ones of suicide given by the accused since that can only form a link in the chain of circumstances and cannot solely lead to a conviction. On a prima facie look at the evidence as pointed out by the defence, and not effectively countered by the prosecution, we cannot but release the two accused, as an interim measure, suspending their sentence till the disposal of the appeal,” the division bench said.

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According to the CBI, Abhaya was killed after she found Kottoor, Puthrikkayil and Sephy in a compromising position inside the kitchen of the Pius X Convent hostel in Kottayam. Fearing that she would disclose the incident, Kottoor allegedly strangled her while Sephy allegedly hit her with an axe. Together, they allegedly dumped Abhaya’s body in a well within the compound.

The division bench examined various issues listed out by the trial court, leading to the conclusion of homicide and regarding the culpability of the accused in the murder case.

The prosecution had banked upon a disturbance at the convent kitchen on the night when the crime was said to have occurred. The high court said, “It said that the so-called disturbances found in the kitchen by one of prosecution witnesses, being the abandoned slippers and veil of the deceased, do not incriminate anyone, especially when Abhaya was missing and later found dead in the well.”

Referring to the statement of social activist Kalarkode Venugopal, which the prosecution relied upon, that the accused priest had confessed to him about his sexual affair with the co-accused nun, the high court said, “This is styled as an extra-judicial confession; quite strange since the crime alleged is of murder and not lewd immorality. We cannot but notice that the accused priest is not being tried for the illicit relationship with a woman, even a nun, and if at all it is established, it does not establish his involvement in the crime, unless there are other cogent circumstances. We cannot but observe that the conclusion is strained for the accused nun is not on trial for her loose morals or character flaws.”

The court further observed that “when the relationship with accused priest was not established, and there is no concrete evidence regarding any medical intervention done on the accused nun, it cannot be assumed that prosecution witness (a forensic expert) opinion on examination was only because of a medical intervention carried out, to cover up the loss of virginity”.

The court was referring to the CBI finding that Sister Sephy had undergone hymenoplasty allegedly to cover up her relation with the accused priest. “The opinion also was that there is possibly a surgical intervention to repair the torn hymen, since the examination revealed it to be scarred. The opinion is not definite and the probable inference again is a breach of the chastity vows, which again do not establish the relationship with accused priest or the alleged escapade on the crucial night (before Abhaya was found dead) or more critically connect the accused nun with the crime of murder,” the court observed.

Referring to the contention that Abhaya was strangled by the priest, murdered and dumped into the convent well, the high court has examined in detail the statement of a photographer, a prosecution witness, who said nail marks were seen on the neck of the killed nun. The high court said, “The nail marks seen on the neck by the photographer is another aspect heavily relied on by the trial court; which even the doctor who conducted the post-mortem failed to notice or report. The trial court laboured on the absence of the negatives, to find it inconsequential, without realizing that even the photographs were not produced.”

The division bench further said, “The photographs produced are said to be that of the convent, by the defence; not controverted by the learned additional solicitor general, who was assisted by the investigating officer before this court. We also have summoned the photographs, which were sent by the trial court on WhatsApp through the Registrar General of this court, which on perusal indicates those to be merely of the convent and not of the body.”

The high court also quoted the opinion of medical experts arranged as prosecution witnesses. Referring to a forensic expert statement, the high court said, “His opinion was that the post-mortem appearances are quite consistent with drowning, the injuries noted on the body minor, and not sufficient or even likely to cause death; which could also be caused in the course of a fall into the well.”

The court said it was also opined that the medical findings make it difficult to definitely categorise the death as accidental, suicidal or homicidal.

The court suspended the life term awarded to the convicted, saying “We do not dwell on the circumstance of lack of explanation or the bizarre ones of suicide given by the accused since that can only form a link in the chain of circumstances and cannot solely lead to a conviction.’’

“We are undaunted by the fact that the accused are ordained members of a church nor intimidated by the outrage displayed in public. We also remind ourselves that we are only on a prima facie consideration of whether the accused, from the evidence led, can be found to have committed the crime, beyond all reasonable doubt,” the division bench said.

 

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